Children And Guinea Pigs - A Guide For Parents

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Wiebke

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Overview
I Children's pets are always family pets
II Learning responsibility

- Legal responsibilities

- Age appropriate responsibilities
- Internalising parents' example and attitudes

III Practical aspects to consider beforehand
- Are guinea pigs the right pets?

- Care and lifespan
- Financial considerations
- Where to keep guinea pigs safely
- Why adopted guinea pigs can be more suitable
- How to best introduce guinea pigs and hold the interest of your children

IV Frequent problems
- Biting
- Fall-outs in boars; trios; mis-sexing and unplanned pregnancies
- Having guinea pigs born at home for your children - Why not
- Allergies, other pets and human pregnancy
- Death and the end of the line

V Conclusion


I Children’s pets are always family pets!

I still remember with a warm glow in my heart the much loved guinea pigs of my childhood and the happy hours I have spent sitting with them on the lawn, cuddling them, building elaborate mazes for them and watching their antics during roaming time amongst lots of giggles and laughter.
But I also remember vividly the constant squabbles over piggy feeding and cleaning, and having to regularly fill in for my derelict brother during his rota week!

It was not the guinea pigs that have taught me responsibility; it was my mother’s insistence that piggy care had to be provided through all the tantrums and attempts of wiggling out. She taught us by her own example that whatever else happened, a pet needed to be taken care of right until the end of its life - in the case of one of our first family piggies that was nearly 10 years!
It can’t have always been easy with three children in a lively household, but I am forever grateful because without her guidance, my childhood would have been a lot poorer and I would never have had all the wonderful guinea pigs that have followed these first trailblazers of my childhood and teenage years.


II Learning responsibility

Legal responsibilities

Legally the responsibility for any pets lies fully with the parents, whether pets are directly owned or indirectly by a minor of the household.
The law covers any pet’s basic rights of having its species specific needs addressed (in guinea pigs, this is especially the need for companionship of their own kind); appropriate nourishment; decent sized (minimum 2x4 ft/60x120cm), safe and clean housing; regular grooming and necessary medical care.
Animal Welfare Act - RSPCA


Age appropriate responsibilities
To which extent you are allowing your children to become involved in the care and playtime with guinea pigs depends on the age, but also the individual personality of your children. But it is your presence during interaction and handling time and your ultimate supervision re. feeding, watering, cleaning and health checks that is and remains crucial!

Please do not set up your children for failure by burdening them with responsibilities that are beyond their age and capabilities!

Please make sure that your children know that it is not a clever idea to let their guinea pigs have playtime with neighbours’ or their mates’ lone piggy, especially if the sow in question is over a year old and at an increasing risk of birthing complications. It is also better to padlock the cage when you are not around and have a child that you can’t trust.

Our forum guide to age appropriate interaction and responsibilities:
Children And Guinea Pigs - Age Appropriate Interaction And Responsibilities.


Internalising parents’ example and attitudes
Please consider that it is the adults whose attitudes towards those in their care your children will internalise – especially when the pets in your care are elderly, frail or ill or your children have long lost their initial interest.

What kind of lessons for life do your children learn from you when guinea pigs are just there as living cuddly toys to be got rid of the same as normal toys once the attraction palls and you find yourself stretched with their care?
What lesson, when smaller pets that have been bought as a temporary cheap “responsibility tester” for a much desired puppy are then dumped or passed on once they have fulfilled their purpose or when your pets urgently “need to get rid of” when they are older, vet cost are mounting up and nobody in the family wants to look after them anymore?
Ultimately, life lessons like these are going to inform your children’s attitudes towards yourself when you are frail and in need of their support.

Sadly all the listed scenarios are anything but rare and can be found expressed daily on free-ads sites as well as be heard when guinea pigs come into rescue. The majority of guinea pigs in rescue are unwanted children’s pets; they are the lucky tip of a growing iceberg.
 

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Practical aspects to consider beforehand

Are guinea pigs the right pets?
It is unfortunately still a widespread misconception that guinea pigs (or rabbits at that) are ideal children’s pets – they aren’t! Both species are prey animals that live in groups with all the proper instincts and reflexes; they are not born as breathing cuddly toys. If you buy young guinea pigs from a shop or a backyard breeder, your guinea pigs will have virtually not had any human interaction or friendly handling before they are being sold as pets and they will have to slowly learn to trust you and your children; it is not a quick process of just a few days!

Trust is a tender plant that grows only slowly: Are your young children patient enough to just sit quietly at first and observe from a distance and then slowly make friends with a very timid and nervous creature?


Care time and lifespan
Please be honest with yourself about how much spare time and energy you have to look properly after any family pets and whether you have got support in a crisis.

Guinea pigs are group animals and not wired to live single, so please always get two of the same sex. They will be much happier and ultimately healthier through having round-the-clock company and stimulation from a friend that understands them on the most basic of levels.
Companionship
Guinea Pig Facts - An Overview

Healthy guinea pigs live on average about 4-7 years, but they can live even longer. The first guinea pig in my life lived to nearly 10 years old! If you have younger children, you’d better plan on getting the guinea pigs for yourself (even if they are of course officially not yours!) and let your children grow up with them rather than expecting them to look after the animals steadily throughout the years.

If your teenager is getting guinea pigs, please sort out what happens with them in case your child is moving away, either temporarily or permanently, into accommodation that will not allow guinea pigs, and who will take responsibility for the pets if a split is not amicable.
Please also take into consideration whether you want to have more children at some point during the likely lifetime of the guinea pigs and whether you will still be able to cope with looking after your guinea pigs then.

You also need to think about holiday care; have you got somebody reliable and preferably knowledgeable at hand or do you need to look into pet care services or boarding?

Please be aware that a lot has changed in the last few years as more attention and understanding of guinea pig behaviourial as well as nutrional or medical needs has built up and is still evolving rapidly.
Here are some information threads on housing and nutrition; two areas that have changed noticably.
Cage Size Guide
Bedding For Guinea Pigs - Overview
Recommendations For A Balanced General Guinea Pig Diet


Financial considerations
The act of getting guinea pigs is unfortunately the cheapest part of it all!

You need to take into account the cost of buying a sizeable cage, hutch or insulated shed, a run, bedding and hideys, in addition to a regular supply of hay, pellets and fresh food, but by far the biggest part of your money is likely to go towards medical bills.

Vet cost can mount up quickly into the hundreds of pounds or dollars, so please look for either exotics insurance (as which guinea pigs are classed as) if that is possible, or make sure that you have got a suitably stocked vet fund at your disposal if you run into a serious medical problem and/or an operation. Most guinea pigs need to see a vet at some point or other in their lives, usually at the most inconvenient time! Vet cost a currently shooting up all over the world, so this aspect is becoming more and more important.
Please do not get any pets if you cannot afford vet care!
veterinary fees - some important information
UK piggy savvy vet locator: Guinea Pig Vet Locator
Worldwide recommended vets: Veterinarians - The GLX-Files


Where to keep guinea pigs safely?
Please be aware that keeping guinea pigs in an outdoors hutch will mean that your children’s interest is likely going to wean more quickly, especially when any feeding and cleaning has to happen on dark, cold and wet days or evenings! We recommend bringing any hutches under cover well away from dampness and cold drafts during the winter. Do you have an insulated shed or a car-free garage or utility room? An unheated conservatory is usually not a recommended space as the temperature swings are far too big and quick for guinea pigs, especially in spring or autumn, nor is the bottom of an aviary a suitable place for guinea pigs (risk of diseases from bird droppings).
Apart from high winds, your piggies also need to be protected from direct sun during heat waves; they can die from heat stroke.
Any outdoors hutches need to be safe from dogs, cats, foxes and rats or other local wildlife in addition to exuberant small children. Runs need also be safe from birds of prey diving in from above as well as any weather/hot sun.

Indoors guinea pigs can become a firm and much loved part of the family with lots of interaction.

However, if you are planning to keep your guinea pigs indoors, you need to take into account that the cage should be safe and well out of reach not just from toddlers and smaller children, but also from any other larger pets, especially boisterous dogs and sneaky hunter cats.
You also have to think hard about which age is safe to have guinea pigs living in one of your children’s bedrooms. It is generally better for you to keep an eye on whether the guinea pigs are healthy and have been cared for properly if they are in a communal part of the house.


Why adopted guinea pigs can be more suitable
Many rescues have got guinea pigs in their care and they know which ones are suitable for a family. Calmer adult ex-pet guinea pigs that are used to being cuddled and handled are generally much better as cuddly “starter piggies” than skittish, wiggly youngsters that are cute babies for a few weeks only, but adults for the rest of their much longer lives.

By rehoming from one of our recommended rescues, you can also have the guarantee that your guinea pigs are healthy and have undergone a mandatory quarantine, sows additionally a pregnancy watch and that all pairs have been carefully bonded. If a rescue is not listed on the links for recommended good standard rescues, please make sure that you ask and check before you rehome; there is no regulation as to who can call themselves rescue, and it can be as much an adopters beware game when it comes to bald patches or lacking home checks as it can be with buying from a breeder (which equally anybody can call themselves).

No rescue worth their salt will place unsuitable nervous or special needs guinea pigs with a family with young children!
However, some rescues may refuse to rehome guinea pigs of theirs into homes with smaller children after bad experiences with a fatal outcome for the adopted guinea pigs.

UK: https://www.theguineapigforum.co.uk/pages/guinea-pig-rescue-locator/
Guinea Lynx :: Rescue Organizations (for good rescues in other countries)


How to best introduce guinea pigs and hold the interest of the children
It is often much better than giving guinea pigs as a surprise present or buying them on an impulse to actually involve your child/children in the process of getting them, so you can learn as a family how to prepare for them, what their needs are and what toys your children can make for their new pets by themselves.

A good rescue will also show you how to best handle, hold and care for your guinea pigs before you bring your own guinea pigs home. Let the rescue decide which guinea pigs are right for you as a family rather than going by looks on a website. This will give you a much better start into a hopefully happy piggy ownership, as you can form a bond with your guinea pigs much more quickly and - hopefully – much more lastingly!

We also have got tips on how to best settle, understand and make friends with new guinea pigs:
How Do I Settle Shy New Guinea Pigs?
How To Understand Guinea Pig Instincts And Speak Piggy Body Language
 

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IV Frequent problems

Biting
Firstly and foremost: guinea pigs are not vicious biters by nature and most cases of biting can be avoided or dealt with.

But they can bite hard in defence of their life if they are frightened or as an instinctive reflex to a sudden movement or loud sound. That is the reason why boisterous young children are more often at the receiving end of a painful bite. Your supervision during interaction is very important - as is waiting until the guinea pigs are actually relaxed and confident enough for safe interaction.

If you have a very timid child, this can also transmit to the animal and invite them to bite or tweak quite hard to see whether they can get away or use the tweaking as a way to dominate. Such a child will need careful coaching and will profit from pets that are already used to handling.

Young guinea pigs explore the world through nibbling; this can be quite hard in some guinea pigs and can frighten children; accidents/dropping a guinea pig often happen in situations like these.

NEVER try to separate fighting or seriously riled up boars with your bare hands! Please use oven gloves to prevent serious damage to yourself.

More information and tips on how to deal with biting issues: Biting


Fall-outs in boars; trios; mis-sexing and unplanned pregnancies
Please be aware that boars go through a hormonal stage between 4-14 months of age. More than half of the pairs make it together to a settled adulthood, but the risk of fights and fall-outs is much higher if you buy two baby boars just for looks and not for character compatibility. Sadly, litter brothers do not fare any better nor does neutering help in the case of guinea pigs; these are simply persistent and widespread myths!
Please be aware that not necessarily all sows will be best friends, either. Considering that guinea pigs are as reliant on company as humans, they are equally picky as to who they like to get on with!
What to check and look out for in new guinea pigs (vet checks, sexing, parasites&illness)
Boars, sows or mixed pairs; babies or adults?
Boars: A guide to successful companionship.
Sows: Behaviour and female health problems (including ovarian cysts)

Nearly all baby boar trios will need separating during the first year of their life. If you have got three children and want a guinea pig for each of them, please either look at three sows or two sows and a neutered boar.
You can find all the pros and cons of all possible pairings listed in this thread here: Boars, sows or mixed pairs; babies or adults?

Sadly, mis-sexing in young guinea pigs can happen fairly easily with either shop personnel or backyard breeders. We have still got a steady influx of people who have ended up with a pregnant sow or two through either mis-sexing or not separating male babies early enough. Please open a thread in our non-breeding pregnancy support and sexing section if you want confirmation of the gender or need help. This section is only visible after you have read and consented to our explicit forum rules in that respect.
https://www.theguineapigforum.co.uk/forums/pregnancy-baby-care-and-sexing-no-breeding.11/


Having baby guinea pigs born at home for your children - Why not!
Please don’t! Just don't!

Because of the exceptionally long pregnancy and large size of pups at birth in guinea pigs, about every fifth pregnancy ends with a tragedy. We are confronted with several cases a year where things go wrong with family guinea pigs and the emotional upheaval this causes to the whole family. It is simply not worth the risk!

You also need to be aware that sows come into season again within hours of giving birth. Baby boars start from 3-5 weeks old and their sisters from 4-6 weeks; that is basically as soon as they are weaned. If you are not very careful or get the sex of even just one baby wrong (and that can happen very easily as babies often look very similar), you can very quickly end up with a exponentially growing number of increasingly inbred guinea pigs. The average litter size can vary between 1-6 babies; can you take care of a large litter?
You will also have to consider that dad is not going to take happily to the necessary spearation from his companion and only being able to join her again after neutering and a full 6 weeks post operation wait to make sure that he is really 100% safe.
 

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Allergies, other pets and human pregnancy
Allergies and asthma can become major issues, especially if somebody in the family develops a form that cannot be easily controlled by medication.
Before you get guinea pigs, give a thought to what happens if they turn out not to be the right pet? It may be useful for the whole family to visit a friend or a rescue centre with guinea pigs several times before getting them yourself to see whether a member of your family is developing skin or respiratory problems and whether you are comfortable with holding and handling them - not everybody is!

If you already have other larger pets, please make sure that any guinea pigs are not exposed to them and that your children cannot put them all together. It takes literally only seconds for a fatal attack in even a supposedly friendly family dog to happen. We see regularly cases of the aftermath of that, as well as problems arising from dogs and cats with a strong hunting instinct in the same household. Guinea pigs are prey animals and always are the ones that pay the price.
Dogs, Kennel Cough And Guinea Pigs - An Important Consideration.

Please also be aware that these days guinea pigs and rabbits should no longer be kept together but instead with another of its own kind.
Guinea Pigs And Rabbits - Why Not


We also get regular enquiries about how safe interaction with guinea pigs is during a human pregnancy. As long as you are not in a high risk category due to underlying issues, normal hygiene (washing/disinfecting your hands and any exposed body parts well before or after handling guinea pigs and their stuff) is perfectly alright.
If you are worried or at risk, you can ask your partner or another family member whether they can clean out the guinea pigs for you during that time. So far we have not heard from any pregnant forum member that had pregnancy problems caused by guinea pigs, but of course we cannot prove otherwise, either!
Human Pregnancy And Guinea Pigs



Death and the end of the line
Sadly there is inevitably the time that one of your pair dies. Sometimes, this can happen out of the blue or after a very short illness at any age. If this happens it can seriously upset sensitive souls. Think about how you want to handle this aspect in an age appropriate way, so you are a bit better braced when you are reeling yourself and have to be there for your child/children as well.

The passing of a pet is often the first time we are confronted with death these days when this issue has been widely pushed out of our daily life and previous familiar rituals have become mostly lost. You can influence how your children learn to deal with this issue in a good way that will help them to cope better later in life.

Especially if you have lost a younger guinea pig and have very upset children, you want to get a new companion for your bereaved mourning guinea pig, ideally by dating at a good rescue under expert supervision, so the guinea pigs can make the choice of whether they like each other or not without you running the risk of ending up with two guinea pigs that don’t get on.
If that is not an option, a younger guinea pig works more often than not, but you may have to brace yourself that acceptance doesn't always happen.
Looking After A Bereaved Guinea Pig
Human Bereavement - Grieving, coping tips and support links for guinea pig owners and their children


But what if your children have grown up and do you do not want to continue with guinea pigs indefinitely? Older guinea pigs need company no less than young ones. If you have adopted from a rescue, you can take recourse to the rescue again and work out the best way forward with them. Rescue guinea pigs revert to the rescue if you can no longer keep them and cannot be handed on to a third party without the rescue approving any new home to comply with their rehoming criteria.

Please contact a good rescue whether they are prepared to let you have a suitable companion for the lifetime of your remaining guinea pig but that reverts to the rescue afterwards.
North East Guinea Pig Rescue in the UK is pioneering a companion scheme for the UK based on the popularity of similar schemes in Switzerland and Germany in the wake of law changes that forbid to sell or to keep single guinea pigs; it is our hope that more rescues will follow in the near future! There are however more and more rescues that are aware of the issue and are willing to work out a suitable solution. Gold Coast Guinea Pig Rescue in Australia is also happy to foster out a companion guinea pig that reverts to the rescue after the death of your guinea pig.

Another unwanted single older guinea pig as next door neighbour can provide the necessary stimulation as an acceptable alternative after a suitable period of quarantine, especially in areas where access to a good rescue is not available.
Importance Of Quarantine


V Conclusion

Guinea pigs can make wonderful family pets and your children can grow up much enriched through the love to a very interactive pet and learning how to stick out a commitment – but it is down to you, through your guidance and your own living example, to make it so!

We wish you all the best and some hopefully magical years with amazing pets that pack so much personality into such a cute little fur ball if you go into your pet ownership with your eyes open!
 
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